The Chinese character for “crisis” is composed of two other Chinese characters, one for “danger” and one for “opportunity.” That could be a description for how Tim Harris, CEO of Wesgro, the official tourism, trade and investment promotion agency for Cape Town and the Western Cape in Africa, sees the water crisis of 2018, when Cape Town faced the prospect of becoming the first major city to run out of water.
Few would have seen anything positive about Cape Town’s water crisis. But Harris, a former elected member of South Africa’s National Assembly, is determined to make the story into a draw for tourism and investment for the southernmost province of South Africa.
Cape Town’s highly publicized water shortage was a setback to its tourism industry and economic well-being. But Harris sees the city’s handling of the crisis as a success story and an inspirational model for the world as the planet warms and water shortages increase in frequency and seriousness.
Facing disaster, and beating it
Harris is leading a campaign of the Western Cape’s tourism and business sectors to turn a bad story into a good one. What kept people away in 2018 could become a story of triumph as Cape Town became a world leader, and an example of how cities can successfully deal with the mounting pressures of climate change.
Travel Market Report caught up with Harris at the New York Times Travel Show in New York last week and asked him to explain his plans for changing a tourism marketing disaster into an opportunity.
“What’s happened in Cape Town is a scenario for probably hundreds of cities around the world,” Harris said. “Climate change is real, and it’s accelerating change faster than anybody anticipated. What that means is that the old predictive models are no longer reliable.
“Certainly, in our case, we have a system that experiences drought periodically. In 2015 and 2016, we had a drought, difficult but not unmanageable. The problem was that, in 2017, we had the worst year of rainfall in recorded history. That’s climate change.”
When consumption continued to outstrip the replenishment of water sources, it meant that at some point, if trends did not change, the water would actually run out.
“Cape Town, which is dependent for its water on a series of rain-fed dams, suddenly faced the prospect of running out of water,” said Harris.
A city without water is a dead city. This was truly a struggle for survival, and what it would require was behavior change among the citizens of Cape Town. They would have to learn to reduce their consumption.
Seventy percent of Cape Town’s water consumption is by households. The effort to save Cape Town would require participation by a large population. Comparing consumption levels to the rate of replenishment made it possible to project when that terrible day would come when Capetonians would turn on the tap and nothing would come out.
“If we were going to make the water last through the dry season, it was going to come down to driving behavior change in order to reduce consumption,” said Harris. “Part of driving that change was a very strong campaign predicting the date at which water would run out, unless there was a reduction in consumption. It was called Day Zero.”
Day Zero would shift as replenishment caught up with and surpassed consumption. It was in the interest of all Capetonians to join the effort to keep pushing that date forward. The challenge engaged rank-and-file residents. The city government worked to establish a link between decisions made by ordinary Capetonians and the shifting date of Day Zero.
If behavior change was essential, many were not optimistic about the prospects. How do you get hundreds of thousands of South Africans to join together in the cause of conservation?
“South Africa is a fascinating, complex and diverse country,” said Harris. “But, as South Africans, we are not very good at behavior change. We are stubborn. So, when you are facing such a difficult situation, there were a lot of people who thought you’re not going to get this behavior change. But the campaign was popular enough, and the link was strong enough, that what ended up happening was the largest reduction of consumption at a household level that’s ever been experienced globally.”
Cape Town reduced its water consumption by 57 percent, a global record, and showed the world what was possible for people joining forces to counter an existential threat.
“The main contribution to us getting through the drought was a change in attitude toward consumption of water and how we could get by with less water as citizens,” said Harris. “You saw this incredible change in attitude and a real massive reduction in wastefulness. Most Capetonians now have a totally different relationship with water. They think about it differently.”
Tourists also embraced the campaign. “We are now very strongly associated with the idea of responsible tourism,” said Harris, “thinking about your impact as you travel. Although tourists only consume 1 percent of Cape Town’s water, tourists really stepped up. The hotel groups and the travel companies all drove this message that, if you are visiting Cape Town, you needed to ‘save like a local,’ to realize that there was a shortage, but that it was still a great destination. We were still open, but we had a particular problem we needed your help with, as a traveler.”
At the same time, the city invested in desalination technology, drilled new wells, tapped into aquifers, and we introduced re-use facilities that recycled water.
“Inasmuch as it was a behavior change on one hand,” said Harris, “it was also an adaptation in terms of the supply of water. The way we got through it was cutting consumption and finding new sources of water. Today, the dams are somewhere between 60-70 percent full in the middle of summer. They had been down to 20 percent.”
Countering a Doomsday scenario
But although the Day Zero campaign was successful in overcoming Cape Town’s water shortage, it was terrible publicity for tourism. Harris and others in the Western Cape’s tourism industry hope that the story can be turned into a positive.
“When Day Zero was created, it gave the impression that Cape Town is not a place to go,” said Harris. Through Wesgro, a large group of stakeholders in the business and tourism sectors went to work to change the messaging.
“The first call we made was to Visit California,” said Harris, “because we knew they had been through a really bad drought, and we wanted to understand what a DMO could do to help to get through it. The advice they gave was, ‘You need to take responsibility for coordinating a message between government and business that you are open for tourism, notwithstanding what you are reading in the papers.’”
Wesgro took Visit California’s advice. “We set up a communications war room,” said Harris, “where we made sure there was a single message we could all amplify. We coordinated the message between government and tourism, working together, city, provincial, federal governments and the private sector. Because of the politics of South Africa, that’s not a natural collaboration. But a crisis brings people together, right?”
Cape Town’s success in overcoming its water shortage crisis was a positive story, a story about how change by individuals could solve a huge problem. Unfortunately, said Harris, “avoiding a drought was less newsworthy than a drought.”
Wesgro had to mount a new campaign to counter the negative effects of the earlier one. “What we’ve done,” said Harris, “is we’ve used those relationships between industry and government and built a single campaign, which we are rolling out now.”
The new campaign uses the slogan “nowhere better” to showcase Cape Town’s many charms and attractions in short, humorous clips.
“What we had is a story of resilience,” said Harris, “a city that faced this climactic event and got through it, which we think will boost the investment pace, but also the strength of the tourist destination.”